João Cerqueira: “Youths have the potential to guide our development model”14.06.2022 • News
The majority of young Brazilians between 16 and 24 years old points out the environmental crisis as a major threat to the future, according to a survey conducted by the Exame/Ideia magazine and published on 04/18, mapping Generation Z’s opinion about the country’s politics. “Supporting candidates committed to ensure that we all have better lives has never been more important”, said João Henrique Cerqueira, socio-environmental activist and coordinator of institutional relations at Clima de Eleição. “If you cannot find anyone committed to these values right now, maybe you should think about becoming a candidate and lead this process”, he said in a message to the Brazilian youth.
In an interview with the Amazoniar team, Cerqueira also spoke about the importance of participating in decision-making spaces, of monitoring local policies, and of the diversity of candidacies to ensure the representativeness of the population.
Throughout your experience working in the climate agenda, what was the greatest lesson you have learned that you would like to share with the world?
Many people, organizations and movements are trying to solve the climate crisis. The same goes for the traditional communities, who have been living for centuries in their territories using technologies to do so. By not using such technologies, we are collapsing. For me, one of the greatest lessons of my life is to listen to and learn as much as possible from those who have been working for the climate agenda and try to adapt our development model and coexistence with the planet.
What are you most proud of having done for the Amazon?
In 2018, I participated in a big youth meeting in Pará in the Tapajós region, whose goal was to develop projects that made sense to as many youths in the country as possible. I coordinated the creation of an energy transition project, aiming to bring young people to the forefront at their schools, make them less dependent on unsustainable energy, and, if possible, transform these places into energy-autonomous schools. We listened to the communities in the area, including the young people, to develop a campaign that would actually match these people’s realities. This national campaign lasted for 1.5 year and had several positive results. So, it was a very special moment for me.
What is your take on what is currently happening in the Amazon?
I think what is happening now might be an intensification of what always has happened. I think the current situation makes it easier for extractive and predatory exploitation to become central in how the territory is regarded, at the expense of the people who live there and of the global climate. Very few people make money from it. The Amazon is hardly seen from any other perspective that could be better for the territory and for the people who live there. So, we are living a very sad moment of intensification, not very different from what happened in the past.
How can a youth institution contribute to the fight for the climate and the Amazon? How can young people get involved in the discussions and in practice?
I am enthusiastic about youth participation. It has great potential to raise debates that are not being held. Furthermore, the young ones are a significant part of the population that is not properly represented in decision-making positions. Therefore, our calls need to be heard. We contribute with a vision of innovation and by elaborating different models. And ultimately, today’s youth will live much longer with the decisions that are being made now and how our development model has been guided: our present and future are at risk. Why are we not participating? Why cannot we influence the decision-making process or how this development model is led? One way to boost the participation of young people is through collective movements, organizations and networks that can support them. There are already many initiatives that can support and help them take the first steps to improve their advocacy actions. It is very difficult to do things alone. Therefore, the more people are involved in the action, the better.
What is your individual and collective work in the climate agenda?
I work directly with policy advocacy. At Clima de Eleição, we work to ensure that the climate agenda gets to the people who make decisions. We have focused a lot on parliamentarians but also on advocacy with politicians as there is a lot of demand. Some leaders are willing to pursue a more ambitious agenda for the socio-environmental issue, but they do not know how to start. Therefore, much of our work involves helping to engage elected candidates or party leaders by presenting data about the agenda and practical tools they can use as representatives of public authorities. We do all the monitoring, engagement, and data production work to support them.
We believe we can engage the country in the climate issue, and these people are very important to it. Even those engaged in politics usually do not go to the City Council nor to a public hearing. Few Brazilians have entered the National Congress. This creates a “comfort zone” for the decision-makers, because they are not held accountable on a daily basis. Therefore, we are trying to strengthen the accountability and monitoring process, as well as to support ensuring that those who are elected actually implement public policies to deal with this great challenge. Professionally, that is what I do. Personally, I am also an activist building movement. I use a bike to get around, I am a vegan, and I try to support any cause I can to create a legacy that is a little better than the one we have now.
How did you come up with the idea of Ciclimático and how can climate activism help in the process of disseminating knowledge and engaging people?
Ciclimático came from the fact that at the time , while talking about the climate change agenda, people usually had an idea of a polar bear and an iceberg melting—things that are far from the reality of the people in our country. It is very hard to communicate the climate crisis if one uses references to which people cannot relate to. We need to generate awareness of a social, political, engaged, and concerned movement on the issue and make sure that there is enough pressure to guide bold public policies to deal with this challenge. The idea of the project was to look for real stories of Brazilians who are dealing with the climate crisis right now. We went to look for these stories in bicycles to avoid emitting greenhouse gases.
We shared these stories with elected representatives because they usually do not know the people of the territory and rarely go out into the field to talk with the communities that live in the area. We wanted to close that gap somehow and bring the people who are being affected closer to those who make public policy decisions. We had a cool case in Paraná, where we traveled along the caiçara and indigenous coast, an area threatened by major infrastructure works—the construction of a port and an access road that will cross two indigenous territories. We shared it with one of the State parliamentarians, who later went to talk with these communities in person and started to create a series of public policies for them. Activism can generate systemic changes if done strategically and inclusively, and not as a one-off action. By focusing on public policies, we can achieve great impact, and activism is important for that.
How do you think the Legislative Branch affects the climate agenda, and how important are these elections for the future of the Amazon?
In Brazil, we focus a lot on the Executive Branch, and we have a very passionate relationship with candidates. This diverts our attention from the Legislative Branch and distorts how our society is represented. Ultimately, the Legislature should be the expression of the Brazilian people. However, the elected leaders we see in the National Congress or in any Legislative Assembly are very distant from people’s realities. Usually, most of them are white, straight, and cisgender, representing great economic powers and accumulating political capital to be re-elected and make their interests prevail in the decision-making process. We have the opportunity to make these positions better represent the people, and reflect what the Brazilian society actually is and needs.
The Legislative Branch will not make decisions that represent the people’s interests unless these environments are as diverse as the Brazilian people. Most Brazilians are pro-forest conservation, pro-environment, and pro-Amazon. However, since this minority occupies so many positions in the Legislative Branch, the interests that prevail usually contribute to predatory extractivism. The Legislative Branch has many potentials: the major public policies are made there, it can veto policies, and the Executive Branch monitors it. It is the strong arm of political advocacy, and if most of its members want to preserve predatory interests, there is little we can do. If an awesome individual is elected to the Executive Branch and is interested in creating a new development model based on socio-environmental justice, s/he will not be able to do anything without the support of the Legislative Branch.
To me, these are the most important elections in our history. We have never had such a decisive electoral process for our country and our planet’s present and future. In recent years, we have experienced a lot of setbacks and destruction in the agenda. Now, in addition to rebuilding, we need to advance very quickly: take back everything that was destroyed and create a new and more ambitious socio-environmental agenda. Failing to do so will jeopardize the very success of the global climate agenda. We do not have until 2030 to start this process. We need to get there with things working well, so that we have a carbon-neutral plan by 2040 or 2050 tops. If the election results are not good, four years may be too late. We are already too late because the country is experiencing increasingly extreme weather events. We are not prepared for it, and thousands of people are being impacted. We need to take into account that the class, race and gender of the people who are most affected by the climate events will be well demarcated. This is already affecting agriculture, the industrial sector, and our international relations. Those who are directly affected by it cannot wait another four years. The same goes for our development, the economy, and the reduction of inequalities.
Studies show that, although the Amazon rainforest has been under the global spotlight in recent years, several Legislative Assemblies of the nine Amazon States are not prioritizing the territory’s protection, sustainable development strategies, and the environmental agenda in their bills. Why do you think this happens? Why should the voters be aware of it?
In 2020, we analyzed the government plan of the Brazilian capital’s candidacies to identify if they included the climate agenda. In terms of government, the Brazilian region that least recognized we are experiencing a climate crisis was the North. Since it affects all biomes, Amazon is widely discussed internationally. However, it is not reflected in the leadership proposals for the present and future. My hypothesis is that these predatory extractive sectors convince these leaders that they will bring economic development and that this is a way to reduce inequalities in the region, which is not true. In recent years, this model has shown its most destructive feature. It is not reducing inequalities nor improving the lives of the most vulnerable people in the territory. However, it is very strong in terms of communication and economic-political power and reinforces the idea that planting soy will improve people’s lives, reduce insecurity, and create more public services, which is not happening. I think we need to develop a process to convert their political parties and align them with the agenda because many national parties defend socio-environmental rights, but the elected leaders in the territory do not. There is a lot of difference between reality and arguments.
How important are the local decision-makers and public administration? What can civil society do in this context?
I am going to extrapolate the territory’s border a little: I think it is easier to talk with the decision-makers at the local branch, the closest one to the population. In the city hall and in our City Councils… that is where we can contact the leaders who are making decisions directly, and that is much easier than traveling to Brasília or to the capital of your State if you do not live in these cities. There is still an overlap in the State capital because you can access the city hall, the State government, the Legislative Assembly, and the City Council at the same time. We need to implement an adaptation strategy locally, and we can exert on influence certain decarbonization public policies (such as public transport, urban zoning and land use), although some of the Amazon municipalities are country-sized, which makes it difficult for some people to participate in it, since they live far away from the administrative pole. The closer you are, higher are your chances of gaining access to a decision-making process and exerting some kind of influence on public policies. The local branch is rarely accessed: there are few NGOs or research institutions that travel to countryside municipalities to advocate with the local leaders. Therefore, we have more opportunities to gain access to the decision-makers that could do better, data-based work to improve our lives.
In your opinion, what does not work in politics anymore, and what should we change from now on?
I think something basic that can improve our lives a lot is changing how we vote: voting on more diversified candidates. Electing more women, black people, indigenous people, and LGBTQIA+ representatives and connecting them to other interest groups. Diversified votes will not necessarily elect people who will defend different agendas. Nevertheless, I think we can encourage people to diversify their candidates and improve how decisions are made in our country, closing the gap between them and the reality of our people. Another thing may be the social participation beyond the elections. An engaged civil society—and I understand that an individual may face many challenges to become engaged in our country, where many have to deal with food insecurity and where violence decimates parts of the population—can cause revolutions. If our society fails to regard the elections as a period for citizen participation and to make demands to the parliamentarians on a daily basis, taking part in movements to cause a strategic political impact, the elected representatives will not feel so free to do so many bad things.
What message would you like to share with the next presidents of our country?
We will watch and monitor what you intend to do, and we will not allow what has been done so far—in the last four years of the presidency—becomes the rule. We are going to raise the bar more and more, and we will not let it get lower because our present and future are at risk. Letting what happened repeat itself means accepting that many other people will have much worse lives. We will not let it happen.
What would you like to say to the young people in Brazil and around the world before the elections?
Your vote has a lot of power. It may seem only a symbolic thing, but it is not. It has never been more important to vote and support candidates actually committed to ensuring that you, your relatives, and your children have better lives. If you cannot find anyone committed to these values right now, maybe it is time to think about becoming a candidate and lead this process. We cannot wait. If not this year, get ready for the next two and keep supporting candidates committed to preventing our collapse as a society.
Amazoniar is an initiative of IPAM (Amazon Environmental Research Institute) to promote a global dialogue about Amazon and its importance for Brazil’s relationships with the world. In its fourth cycle, Amazoniar will promote interviews with young Brazilians and foreigners who inspire the mobilization for climate justice, especially in the Amazon. These interviews will be published on the IPAM website in June. Sign up for the newsletter to receive the next interviews!